In the early-1970s, tennis was perceived as elitist. Despite the sport’s popularity on public courts around the U.S., the game still had a stodgy exterior. Things started to change in the early 1970s as professional tennis gained in popularity. Female pros lobbied for pay parity, which got a huge push forward when Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes.
Riding the momentum from that victory, King was an integral part of launching World Team Tennis, a concept that shook up tennis convention. Teams were made up of male and female players playing five-set matches with one set each of men’s and women’s singles and doubles as well as mixed doubles. Veteran journalist Steven Blush takes a comprehensive look at the league in his new book “Bustin’ Balls: World Team Tennis 1974–78, Pro Sports, Pop Culture, and Progressive Politics.”
“I was fascinated by the idea of promoting gender equality through sports,” said Blush, who was inspired to write the book after watching a Vault episode about WTT on MSG Channel. “The idea that there was a political intent behind this. It was so radical for the time.”
Blush spent nearly eight years researching and writing the book. He began with a few interviews, but found people reticent to truly examine WTT. Blush built much of the book from archival material, including more than 2,500 news articles that revealed the ups, downs and unique aspects of this alternative approach to tennis.
Blush details how WTT tried to increase diversity in tennis, but despite having baseball legend Reggie Jackson as a co-owner of one of the franchises, those efforts fell short. There were three notable African American players: Margot Tiff, Lenny Simpson and John Lucas, with Lucas, a two-sport athlete better known for his accomplishments on the basketball court, getting the most attention.
“Margot Tiff was signed by the Cleveland team; she was from the Cleveland area,” said Blush. “She had played at Cal State Los Angeles, which is where Billie Jean King played college tennis. She was the first Black woman on the Virginia Slims tour.
“Lenny Simpson was a childhood friend of Arthur Ashe that became a pro in the Detroit area, so the Detroit team season signed him,” he continued. “While John Lucas was at the University of Maryland breaking basketball records, he was also playing tennis with one of the best teams in the country [Lucas was an All-American and won ACC singles titles].”
In 1978, Lucas played with the New Orleans team, getting attention for his mixed doubles partnership with transgender trailblazer Renee Richards.
“This is a story that was so radical and now it makes perfect sense,” said Blush. “That’s the strength of the timeless vision that Billie Jean had for the hopeful direction of society.”